I’ve been wandering around local car boot sales (brocantes, floumaart, etc.), photographing those selling things, as per my exploration of portraiture.

I always ask people if I can photo them. This isn’t just a matter of basic politeness. I can think of various reasons why people might refuse:

image: montmartre

  • They don’t like being photographed. I understand this one, it’s why I originally chose to be the guy behind the camera.
  • They don’t think they look good in photos. Well, that’s their choice. I wouldn’t be asking them if I didn’t think I could get a good photo. Then again, having some experience of being human, I do get the whole question of self–image and its foibles.
  • They expect to accidentally forget to mention their sales activities to the tax authorities. I disapprove, but it’s not something I can address. Really, though, do such people expect that, if tax people were chasing them, they’d be wandering around with a camera half the size of a car when mobile phones are ubiquitious, effectively invisible, and perfectly capable of taking decent photos?
  • They do not want to be found—perhaps they’ve escaped an evil regime, or domestic violence, but have good reason to believe that their persecutors would like to find them. Given I tell them that I intend to put photos online, they are simply unwilling to take the risk of their persecutors seeing it and finding them.

That final reason alone is why a photographer should always ask permission to photo.

In photographic terms, I personally prefer candid, non–posed photographs, they have a feeling of honesty about them, but in this context that would be wrong. The sellers have deliberately prepared the presentation of the things they’re selling, so a photograph is more consistent if the sellers themselves can also deliberately prepare their own presentation.

One of the advantages of using a massive camera, in my case an elderly Nikon F5, is that it is blatantly obvious. It causes conversation. It means people know exactly what I’m doing. There’s nothing sneaky about it. A mobile phone is perfectly capable of taking these photos, but there’s nothing out of the ordinary about them. They do not generate conversation. They are not seen. If I were taking street photography, I would probably use a mobile. But, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I’m not: I’m taking semi–formal photographs of a common social activity, one that’s very ancient yet very contemporary.

Of course, behind the camera is the photographer, and he’s part of the image too. This is a situation where I am very grateful for an existing stereotype: the scruffy, unshaven, abrupt, journalist. I fit that visual cliché a bit too well. It’s no wonder that people often ask me if I’m one, even though I couldn’t imagine a modern journalist would actually use a humungous camera, they’d use the same as everyone else, their mobile—unless they also wanted to generate approaches and conversation.

image: montmartre

People’s reactions to me can be quite interesting. Some people love being photographed, and ask me to take a photo before I can say anything. Sometimes, a seller is reluctant to agree until I make it clear I’d like to photo all the sellers together—this seems especially true when there’s a family involved. Occasionally, teenage girls, whom I suspect have ambitions to be models, look at my camera with something of a hunger—that’s great, it means their parents would be in deep trouble should they dare refuse my request to photo! It’s not uncommon for some members of a group of sellers on a stall to drop out of a group photo—I always let that happen without comment.

About the only difficulty happens when someone refuses to be photographed, but in such a way that makes me think they want to be persuaded otherwise. It’s very easy to get that wrong. If the refusal is genuine, attempting to get the person to change their mind is a mistake. If the refusal is false, failing to attempt to get the person to change their mind is a mistake. I tend to lean towards the former, because if it’s the latter and I don’t attempt to persuade someone who wants to be persuaded, they lied to me, but sometimes their desire is so obvious that I will ask again. If someone has put an effort into looking good, but isn’t self–confident, then I do have a little bit of a duty to ask them again. In other words, it’s a minefield—so it’s not surprising that I’ve seen negative expressions to both asking again and not asking again. Someone with high social experience could probably read the body language and work it out—but that’s not me. One hardly refines ones body language skills when ones day job is kicking recalcitrant computers.

Now much of this will be stunningly obvious to many people and many photographers. To me, it’s a learning experience. I’m glad I finally decided to start exploring portraiture, and that I found a subject that enables me to do so. I wonder how long I’ll keep doing this before my reluctance to engage with strangers will make itself felt again.